Certainly, many of us crave carb-loaded foods like chocolate chip cookies, pizza and pasta. But can we be addicted to carbs? Many experts believe we can.
“While ‘food addiction’ is not a clinical term, you can be addicted to eating carbs if consuming them interferes with life in a meaningful way over a time period and you are having difficulties changing your behavior to stop the mounting consequences,” says psychologist Adi Jaffe, whose specialties include addiction treatment.
A study published in 2013 by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high-glycemic “bad carb” foods like white bread and potatoes might trigger the same brain mechanism as substance abuse does. Such carbs are highly processed and rapidly digested.
“Beyond reward and craving, this part of the brain is also linked to substance abuse and dependence, which raises the question as to whether certain foods might be addictive,” Dr. David Ludwig, a Harvard Medical School researcher and professor, said in 2013.
So, if carb addiction really does exist, what can you do about it? Nutrition professionals offer six tips for curbing your enthusiasm about carbs.
1. Take a carb inventory.
Gabrielle Desmarais, a certified nutritional therapy practitioner, recommends reviewing — and then cutting down on — the quantity of processed foods in your house that contain carbs.
“Paring down the amount of these foods will help you make great headway in breaking the addiction, as these are the worst offenders,” Desmarais says. “Breads, pastas, sodas, candies, baked goods — the more you can remove, the better.”
As you’re weaning yourself off those foods, exchange them for whole foods with complex carbohydrates, which digest slowly and help stabilize your blood sugar, she says. Ideal substitutes include sweet potatoes, plantains, lentils and steel-cut oatmeal.
“Over time, slowly reduce the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming until you no longer feel the cravings burst forth,” Desmarais says. “You likely will feel so great you won’t even want to reintroduce processed carbs again.”
2. Monitor your carb intake.
Although certified nutritionist and nutrition coach Alisha Carlson scoffs at the notion of carb addiction, she says it’s still worthwhile to be mindful of your carb consumption.
“Sometimes you may realize you’re eating something you don’t really like just because it’s there,” Carlson says.
3. Make friends with healthy fats.
Holistic health and wellness coach Casey Kaczmarek recommends emphasizing healthy fats to help kick your carb habit. For instance, try half an avocado with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and pepper spread on top of fresh cucumber slices rather than on a piece of toast. Or slather sunflower-seed butter or almond butter on celery sticks instead of bread sticks.
4. Fill up on fiber.
Because fiber is more slowly digested than carbs are, it contributes to a feeling of fullness, Foley says. That feeling can help you steer clear of bad carbs. High-fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and oats.
“This is a great way to be able to still incorporate carbs into a diet yet simultaneously help reduce their addictive nature and prevent overeating,” Foley says.
Keep in mind, though, that high-fiber foods likely aren’t carb-free.
5. Focus on something other than food.
When the urge hits you to consume carbs, go for a non-food alternative, Kaczmarek says. Perhaps you could take a walk until the craving passes. Or maybe you could curl up with a good book, finish that scarf you’ve been knitting or engage in another enjoyable activity “that releases feel-good hormones in the brain,” she says.
6. Get some sleep.
Oftentimes, people crave carbs — especially sugar — when they’re tired, Kaczmarek says. Taking a nap or heading to bed early can help limit your desire for carbs, she says. Besides, getting the proper amount of sleep (which one-third of American adults don’t do) yields so many other health benefits.